Saturday, July 12, 2014

VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE




Our society is under attack. Everything you know and hold dear is about to be undone and destroyed. There is something in our midst with the power to do just that. We all know what this thing is. Some of us may have even tolerated it, underestimating it, thinking it's just a fad or a passing craze. But, my Dear Reader, it is more than that. It has within it the power to corrupt our children, to cause our very moral and ethical fiber to turn to dust. It is eating at us at this very moment, but we simply don't recognize it for the real threat it is. And if we don't stop it now, not soon, but NOW, it will be too late.

What is this thing, this devil in our midst? Well, depending upon your generation, it may have been alcohol or rock and roll, comic books or video games, Communism or atheism, gay marriage or women's rights. What it is may change with the tides of time, but its presence is permanent. It is the "threat". In Britain in the early 1980s, it existed, sneaking quietly, almost imperceptibly, into the homes of thousands.

It was videotape.

The Video Nasty scandal that blew up in Britain in the 1980s was and is a prime example of what is known as a Moral Panic. The suppression of violent and sexual films distributed widely and without regulation at the dawn of the age of the home video cassette player will probably be well known to many of you though the lengths and means the moral majority took to ensure that no one, adults and children alike, could lay their hands on this "vile filth" is perhaps a bit more complicated than you know. Jake West's excellent documentary VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE lays all the facts on the table, allowing both sides of the argument to present their case. What emerges is a tale of censorship horror, government abuses, and rank immaturity and ignorance the scale of which meets (if not exceeds) anything found within the pages of Fahrenheit 451.

That is not hyperbole. That is a fact. What transpired during the Video Nasty scandal was a gross misuse of the time, energy and expenses of both the government and the police force. Video dealers, honest folks out to raise a few pounds, were harassed, threatened and fined. Distributors were required to turn over a large percentage of their stock to the police so that the tapes may be burned. Accusations of snuff videos, child pornography and the like were being fed to the gullible public. False studies were being produced to show the damaging effects of violent material on innocent minds and the adult viewership was being told, in no uncertain terms, what they may or may not watch in the comfort of their own homes.

I had heard all about the Video Nasty debacle when I was a teenager. It seemed absurd to me that anyone would have had such a violent reaction to the videos I was absorbing daily. I felt perhaps a bit spoiled by it all. I relished in the idea that my local video store was my own playground. My father had given the store permission to rent to me, a thirteen year old, any tape on the shelf. I watched exploitation, horror and shockumentaries at a rather frantic pace. I rented softcore pornography (the only kind of pornography the store stocked). I rented Mondo films. I was seeing things most parents wouldn't want their children to see even if they were twice my age. This was not some kind of gross negligence on the part of my parents. When I was even younger, my parents talked to me about the difference between the reality around me and the false reality on my television screen. I wasn't fooled by the images in front of me, nor was I oblivious to the utter immorality of the actions various antagonists (and oftentimes protagonists) carried out in these films. My parents used the medium to teach me ethical and moral lessons. I was prepared for what I saw.

When I first heard the claims that violent media results in violent citizens I was a bit confused. I was spending upwards of 30 hours sitting in front of the television set, watching all manner of violence and deviant sexuality. But I was not, by any stretch of the term, a violent person. I never thought about slitting anyone's throat or raping my next door neighbor. Nor was I in any way immune to feeling shock when presented with real life images of murder and mayhem. I found many of the images in the so-called "death films" (things like TRACES OF DEATH) to be sickening and disturbing. I was not mute in the face of carnage. How did I manage to escape the unavoidable side effects of a daily diet of video violence?

To this date, no conclusive evidence has been presented that firmly links exposure to violent media with an increase in violent tendencies. In fact, you're likely to find a disconfirming study for every confirming study. To put it plainly, causation is not the same as correlation, and the argument that, for example, violent killers like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were also avid video game players, therefore video games were the cause of the shootings at Columbine, simply do not hold water. But that is precisely the matter that lies at the heart of the Video Nasty scandal. There were people who believed, powerfully believed, in fact claimed to KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that exposure to any of these films would lead their children down a path to inhumanity and psychopathy.

A very simplified version of the facts is as follows: when videotape was introduced into the marketplace in 1979, the releases were not regulated. While cinema releases were subject to the British Board of Film Classification (known at that time as the British Board of Film Censors), videotape releases were not. That allowed for a flooding of the marketplace. Because of the sudden and profound popularity of the new medium, hundreds of small, independent video rental stores opened up all over the place. The owners would simply buy whatever was on offer from distributors. A large amount of uncut horror and exploitation titles ended up sitting alongside family fare on rental shelves across the country.

Everything went along smoothly (and profitably) for everyone involved until Mary Whitehouse became aware of the existence of these graphic videotapes. Whitehouse, the founder of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, a media watchdog group, and a conservative Christian, decided to make the removal of this material from video stores a major priority. In 1982, police began confiscating and destroying video tapes as the media blitz surrounding the growing controversy reached scary new heights. It didn't take long before the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) began trying to get individual films prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act (OPA), a 1959 Act of Parliament that prohibited the distribution of "obscene material", specifically sexual material. As the OPA had been amended in 1977 to cover the release of pornographic films, it made perfect sense to try and use it to censor and ban violent films. The DPP, having won prosecution against a selection of films, drew up a list of titles (at the behest of the Video Retailers Association) that were to be sought after and seized from all dealers, distribution houses and homes. That list of titles is what we now refer to as the DPP Video Nasties list.

In 1983, at the urging of Whitehouse, a Conservative MP by the name of Graham Bright introduced to the House of Commons a Private Member's Bill. It passed with relative ease. The resulting bit of legislation is known as the Video Recordings Act (VRA) of 1984. The VRA went into effect in September of 1985 and required all videotapes released before or after that date to be sent to the BBFC for new classification. Because the focus of the VRA was to keep offensive material out of the hands of children, the standards for film classification were different for home video than they were for cinema release. That meant that while a certain film may have played uncut in cinemas, the same film may be censored for home video release. Anyone caught releasing or distributing an unclassified videotape would be subject to hefty fines and the possibility of being jailed for a maximum of two years.

Let that sink in for a moment... Selling or renting out an unclassified or uncut videotape - a VIDEOTAPE - became a criminal offense.

While the previous paragraphs are a total oversimplification of the events that transpired in the early 1980s, none of the details are spared in VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE. Alongside interviews with Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Stephen Thrower and other film critics, we are privy to the thoughts of people like Peter Kruger, the head of the Obscene Publications Squad, Scotland Yard at the time, and Graham Bright, both of whom maintain they were doing the right thing in their quest to wipe these films out of existence. But the most informative voice belongs to Martin Barker, one of the few journalists to stand up to the propaganda squad and try to voice a little reason amidst all the outrage. Barker's insights are poignant and cogent, and are well worth the price of admission. What may seem baffling in hindsight is brought to vivid life by director Jake West and stands as perhaps the definitive documentary study on the topic.

While censorship standards have become much more relaxed in Britain since 1985 (indeed many of the Video Nasties have since been re-classified and released uncut), the scandal that erupted in that half decade stands as one of the most terrifying examples of what happens when paranoia trumps reason, when something so seemingly innocent as providing someone access to a video cassette can result in imprisonment and completely crippling fines. When people think of misuses of government power, they tend to think large. Compared to military operations, the seizing and banning of videotapes looks downright trivial, but the idea of anyone in power deciding what someone can or cannot see (not SHOULD or SHOULD NOT but CAN or CANNOT) should be terrifying to anyone who values individual liberties and the exercise of their own intellect. It's not too far of a fall from banning videotapes to banning books, to banning free expression, to convicting people of thought crime.

Now that sounds like a paranoid reaction on my part, a private Moral Panic even, but to think that would be to ignore what was really at the heart of the Video Nasty scandal. It wasn't just trying to clean the streets of disgusting films full of mutilated latex bodies and animal innards. It was about trying to force one particular viewpoint, that of the Christian conservative Whitehouse and her ilk, on everyone else. It was about forcing others to live their lives in a homogenized, specific way. It was the desire to legislate their morality, their personal ethics and tastes, onto the rest of the population. And they were victorious.

That should terrify and frustrate anyone who holds the notion of individual liberties dear. The Video Nasty scandal was a small event in the grand history of things, but it proved a point. This particular kind of injustice isn't just possible, but probable. Pro-censorship advocates like to think they're doing something good without allowing the possibility that people will figure that out on their own. It's the removal of a choice. It's a limiting of someone's freedom to choose. There is nothing more repulsive than someone who thinks they know you better than you know yourself, even more so when they're masquerading under the banner of proper morality and intellectualism.

It seems as if there always needs to be some kind of imagined threat from without to explain the tragedies and troubles that arise from the within. We need a scapegoat, someone to point a finger at. Centuries ago, we burned and stoned and hanged women for spreading disease and ill luck through the dark powers of witchcraft. We drilled holes in people's heads to release the demons that were causing them to shake or display radically shifting moods. We have done this time and time again throughout human history. The societal troubles that were present in the early 80s in the UK were deep. The Winter of Discontent had given way to high unemployment and rioting. A boogeyman was something needed. The Video Nasty provided a distraction and a new cause to be rallied around.

Even after the scandal had calmed down, the stigma remained. The idea of snuff videos (somewhat of a preoccupation for the British press even before the Video Nasty days) still existed, popping up again and again in the newspapers. The death of 14 year old Jason Swift in 1985 at the hands of pedophiles fueled rumors that his sexually motivated murder was videotaped as part of a snuff production. The Sun, The Daily Star, The Independent, and The Guardian all fell victim to this kind of sensationalism. In 1992, trading standards officers and police raided the homes of video collectors across Britain, snagging hundreds of videotapes, including many Video Nasties. The Star (May 8, 1992) was quick to publicize the findings under the headline "Snuffed Out: Cops Swoop to Seize 3000 Sick Killer Videos" and stated that several snuff movies were found. That same day, The Daily Express and the Evening Standard ran similar pieces with the same erroneous findings. Raids of this kind were carried out routinely in the next couple of years. None of them ever turned up a snuff film. But that didn't stop the press. Snuff was well and alive in the British subconscious. Wiping out the Nasties did nothing to stop the fear of videotape.

There was a brief return to the proper Video Nasty craze in 1993 when the broken, beaten corpse of a two year old boy named James Bulger was found in Walton, Liverpool. People were undeniably shocked to find that the men responsible for the death of this young boy weren't men at all. They were two young boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both ten years old. How these two young children could have even thought of the horrors they unleashed upon young James Bulger couldn't be explained. But a search of one of the killer's homes revealed what seemed to be the answer. A copy of CHILD'S PLAY 3 was found. Immediately, the cycle began to repeat itself in the newspapers. The monster had risen from the grave to once again poison the minds of children.

At some point, the scapegoating will end. At some point, we will learn to see that answers are very rarely packaged neatly. VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE features scores of academics, politicians and policemen who somehow managed to escape the devilish influence of these films through the years. The growling hypocrisy of the argument, that these films will corrupt all who see them except those who ACTUALLY saw them, is evident, but it also demonstrates a serious distrust of our fellow human beings. What lit the fires of the Inquisition was an idea of moral superiority mixed with a potent brew of fear, superstition and irrational overreaction. Today, we laugh at the idea that someone would think anything in films like CANNIBAL FEROX or SNUFF was real, but these people genuinely believed they were. I don't necessarily fault them for doing what they thought was right, but they went about it in all the wrong ways and their course of action set a dangerous precedent. Once we stop looking for answers in the wrong places, once we stop chasing down the phantom menace and stop pointing fingers, we can mature. We can find answers. We can progress beyond fear mongering and paranoia.

The Internet has rendered much of the argument over censorship obsolete. Video is no longer the only way for films to propagate. P2P file sharing virtually guarantees the spread of unaltered, unedited films. Real violence and hardcore sex lurks around every corner of the World Wide Web. With a click of a mouse, you can see people being beheaded or you can see mass orgies. The Internet has been with us for quite some time now. The world has yet to end. Exposure to violent and sexual material is at an all time high. Where are the masses of serial killers leaving hundreds dead in their wake? For the film censors in 1985, the Internet experience would stop their hearts. Have we collapsed as a society because of it? Can you name one person who hasn't seen footage of a car accident, an assassination or a crime scene? Can you name a single person who has not seen real horror?

We watched in horror as the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble, but I don't know a single action film fan who thought the images of the planes hitting the towers were "cool". I don't know a single fan of comedies that is funnier than anyone else because they only watch comedic films. I don't know of anyone who suddenly bursts out in song because they watch countless musicals. But we have been led to believe, just as they were led to believe back in the early 1980s that exposure to horror films would result in frothing, blood thirsty monsters slashing babysitters with kitchen knives. Perhaps that does happen from time to time. Perhaps some people are truly set off by watching these Video Nasties, but I would argue that anyone who watches a horror film and then kills their mother and father were messed up well before they ever pushed play. If the problems of why people commit horrible atrocities were that easy, imagine what we could solve if we simply ran Disney movies on all channels 24 hours a day, every day of the week or strapped psychopaths to chairs, a la A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and force fed their subconscious a steady diet of bunny rabbits and puppy dogs. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Reality seldom is.

What we should come away from all of this knowing is that censorship rarely solves the problem it sets out to solve. There are far bigger problems in the world that need our attention and to divert, knowingly divert, attention away from them towards some kind of phantom boogeyman is not the way to go. And we should take notice of how this all came to pass. We should learn from it. The most remarkable comment in the entirety of Jake West's documentary comes courtesy of Martin Barker:

"...the most interesting thing to me is just how little historical memory we have. The next time there's a panic, we won't remember just how stupid the last one was and how people get away with things. And that to me is the most important lesson about this campaign. The Evangelical got away with murder, they got away with fraud, they got away with deceiving people. They now laugh it off and the fact that almost all these films are now available uncut in the public domain... they don't care. Because they move on. Because what they want to do is to dominate the present and they don't care about history. Critical voices have to care about history. We have to care about the way in which things got controlled in the past because that's when the damage gets done. And if we don't keep that historical memory, we will allow them to do it again next time."

The DPP Video Nasty list:

ABSURD (aka HORRIBLE; aka ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2) - never re-submitted for re-classification.
ANTHROPOPHAGOUS: THE BEAST - released with approximately 3 minutes of cuts in 2002.
AXE - released uncut in 2005.
THE BEAST IN HEAT – banned outright.
THE BEYOND - released uncut in 2001.
BLOOD BATH (aka BAY OF BLOOD; aka TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) - released uncut in 2010.
BLOOD FEAST - released uncut in 2005.
BLOOD RITES (aka THE GHASTLY ONES) - banned outright.
BLOODY MOON - released uncut in 2008.
THE BOGEY MAN (aka THE BOOGEYMAN) - released uncut in 2000.
THE BURNING - released uncut in 2001.
CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE - released with 2 seconds of cuts in 2005.
CANNIBAL FEROX - released with approximately 5:06 of cuts in 2000.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST - released with 15 seconds of cuts in 2011.
THE CANNIBAL MAN - released with 3 seconds of cuts in 1993.
CANNIBAL TERROR - released uncut in 2003.
CONTAMINATION - released uncut in 2004.
DEAD AND BURIED - released uncut in 2004.
DEATH TRAP (aka EATEN ALIVE) - released uncut in 2000.
DEEP RIVER SAVAGES (aka MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) - released with 3:45 of cuts in 2003.
DELIRIUM - released with 16 seconds of cuts in 1987.
DEVIL HUNTER - released uncut in 2008.
DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE - released with 3:07 of cuts in 1987.
DON'T GO IN THE WOODS - released uncut in 2007.
DON'T GO NEAR THE PARK - released uncut in 2006.
DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT - released uncut in 2005.
THE DRILLER KILLER - released uncut in 2002.
THE EVIL DEAD - released uncut in 2001.
EVILSPEAK - released uncut in 1999.
EXPOSE (aka THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL) - released with approximately 30 seconds of cuts in 2006.
FACES OF DEATH - released with 2:19 of cuts in 2003.
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE - banned outright.
FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN - released uncut in 2006.
FOREST OF FEAR - banned outright.
FROZEN SCREAM - banned outright.
THE FUNHOUSE - released uncut in 1987.
GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY - banned outright.
THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY - released uncut in 2009.
HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK - released with 11:43 of cuts in 2002.
HUMAN EXPERIMENTS - released with 26 seconds of cuts in 1994.
I MISS YOU, HUGS AND KISSES - released with 1:06 of cuts in 1986.
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE - released uncut in 2010.
INFERNO - released uncut in 2010.
ISLAND OF DEATH - released uncut in 2010.
KILLER NUN - released uncut in 2006.
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT - passed uncut in 2008.
LATE NIGHT TRAINS (aka NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS) - released uncut in 2008.
THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (aka LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE) - released uncut in 2002.
LOVE CAMP 7 - banned outright.
MADHOUSE (aka THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL) - released uncut in 2004.
MARDI GRAS MASSACRE - banned outright.
NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES - released with approximately 1 minute of cuts in 1999.
NIGHT OF THE DEMON - released with 1:41 of cuts in 1994.
NIGHTMARE MAKER - banned outright.
NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN - re-released in original edited form in 2005.
POSSESSION - released uncut in 1999.
PRANKS (aka THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) - released with 10 seconds of cuts in 2001.
PRISONER OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (aka MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) - released with 2:06 of cuts in 2001.
RETURN OF THE BOOGEYMAN (aka BOOGEYMAN II) - released uncut in 2003.
THE SLAYER - re-released uncut in 2001.
SNUFF - passed uncut in 2000.
SS EXPERIMENT CAMP - released uncut in 2005.
TENEBRE - released uncut in 2003.
TERROR EYES (aka NIGHT SCHOOL) - released with 1:16 of cuts in 1987.
THE TOOLBOX MURDERS - released with 1:46 of cuts in 2000.
UNHINGED - released uncut in 2004.
VISITING HOURS - released with approximately 2 minutes of cuts in 1986.
THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI - banned outright.
THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA - released uncut in 2006
WOMEN BEHIND BARS - banned outright.
ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH (aka HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD) - released uncut in 2002.
ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (aka ZOMBI 2; aka ZOMBIE) - re-released uncut in 2005.